Issue 2 – Fall 2013: Size doesn’t matter … or not as much as we think

In the mega-urban worldview that sometimes skews Canadian fundraising, it is easy to overlook the specific challenges of staff retention in smaller markets.

It’s just as easy to assume that it must be even more difficult to find and keep good fundraisers in smaller markets. But the reality is more complex: while some fundraisers perceive drawbacks to smaller centres, others find them more appealing. The allure of bigger jobs at bigger institutions is universal; the only difference is that in a smaller centre, professionals often have to leave town to “move up.”

size-doesnt-matterKent Hartshorn’s 21-person fundraising department at the University of Saskatchewan is the largest in Saskatoon (population 240,000). He’s keenly aware of the impact that job enrichment and opportunities for promotion have on retention. “My biggest challenge,” he reveals, “is having all 21 positions filled and staff on a career path that meets their needs and lets them achieve both personal success and success for donors.”

The U of S fundraising team has, at first glance, a commendable retention record with an average stay of between six and seven years. But the picture may change. Though the university offers a competitive total compensation package and flexible work environment, Saskatchewan’s booming economy and some university policies make it hard to create new, more challenging roles in time to satisfy professionals who can readily find opportunities elsewhere in the city.

To stay connected, she willingly drove 95 kilometres to the nearest chapter in Calgary
so that she could be an active, learning member of her professional organization.

GREAT LIFE IN A CITY THAT’S A WELL-KEPT SECRET

Hartshorn’s pool of potential hires is smaller than he would like.

“There are only 20 Certified Fundraising Executives in the entire province and we have four of them already,” he explains.

Saskatoon is a growing, prosperous community, appealing enough that fundraisers tend to stay there and move among its charities rather than away from the city. But it’s also a well-kept secret.

“We have to make people aware of Saskatoon’s vibrancy,” Hartshorn believes. “I would like to attract more fundraisers from outside Saskatoon.”

At the time of his interview, Kent had five vacant positions. He notes that two universities in larger Prairie cities have started to post positions for special campaigns. As their fundraisers visit Saskatoon alumni, he has no doubt they will meet with some of his staff as well.

“Not a week goes by without someone receiving an email about available positions,” he observes.

And as he points out, that’s true everywhere, in charities and communities large and small.

SMALL SHOP, SMALL TOWN, BIG GOALS

Even in much smaller communities, small shops still don’t equate to small opportunities. Joyanne Mitchell is Manager Development & Alumni Relations at Lethbridge College. She lauds the benefits of her role with a capital campaign team of six fundraisers, as well as support staff for Olds College in Olds, Alberta (population 8,500).

“I was exposed to the entire range of fund development practices during a $43 million capital campaign,” she recalls. “I saw everything. I was always involved in decision making, and the school had a great reputation.”

Beyond her own institution, Joyanne felt professionally isolated. There were very few other fundraisers in Olds. The National Society of Fundraising Executives, predecessor to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, exposed her to other professionals and best practices. To stay connected, she willingly drove 95 kilometres to the nearest chapter in Calgary so that she could be an active, learning  member of her professional organization.

Lethbridge’s population of 100,000 makes it much larger than Olds, but the city contains only a few people who already have the required skills. Joyanne looks for “people we are able to train who already have the required transferable skills and personal characteristics,” whether or not they already have a fundraising background. There are barriers though: widespread unawareness of fundraising as a profession inhibits sector switching, and established fundraisers are reluctant to move to a community where they don’t perceive a growth path in responsibility, title and pay.

KEEP THE STAFF, WIN THE GIFTS

There’s one significant common factor among all philanthropy-dependent institutions, regardless of location or size. Trust built with a donor over a long tenure equals success.

“A senior fundraiser here was stewarding an individual from another province. Over a number of years, those consistent contacts have led to this donor giving ongoing transformational gifts totaling tens of millions of dollars,” Kent recalls. “Some donors give regularly, love the institution, and would give no matter who called. There aren’t a lot of those though. The trust built up with that kind of fundraiser continuity is paramount in receiving significant gifts.”

Joyanne agrees. In Olds, she came to know a donor who had been considering two or three postsecondary institutions as beneficiaries of his estate.

“We secured his bequest commitment because of our mission,” she reveals. “Then we suggested adding a small component of ‘here and now’ giving to create an annual student award. Next, he started a designated endowment. Our steady contact over the years allowed us to share extensively about the College and encouraged him to continue adding to his endowment. Because he didn’t have to change contacts, he built a lasting trust in the College.”